Sunday, October 27, 2013

On eating one's words: The good, the bad, and the real

This blog post has been more than two months in the writing.  It seems every time I go back to the draft to complete it, events have occurred that have direct bearing on what I'm trying to say.  I'm really going to try to wrap it up today.

Over the past several weeks, I think I've re-read  this previous post  and this one at least a dozen times each.  Maybe more than that.

And maybe I've done so to rationalize my position on reviews and reviewers given the, ahem, ongoing fracas regarding them you-know-where.

But there's been a little more to it in my case than what's been discussed publicly, and that's what's been stewing.  And it's why I've spent so much time on this particular essay.

Not too long before the big explosion/implosion "over there" and in the wake of yet another author meltdown over a review she didn't like -- neither the title, author, or the reason is important -- I received some private comments regarding my stance to defend all reviews and all reviewers, no matter how vicious, no matter how vapid, no matter how insincere, especially since I'm an author, too.  The people who contacted me were not antagonistic; they were, and still are, friends who were asking if I still felt the same after reading the reviews that had prompted the author's meltdown.  Some of the comments in those reviews were, though not at all personal, pretty damn harsh.  The reviewers basically said there was nothing at all to recommend the book:  The writing was terrible, the characters had no redeeming qualities, the plot was simplistic (where it wasn't totally incomprehensible), and the sex scenes were. . . .well, never mind that.   The reviewers pretty much all said the book was terrible and should never have been (self)-published.

My response in all cases was the same:  Reviewers have the right to say whatever they want.  They don't owe the writer a damn thing. friends protested.  Didn't I have any compassion for my fellow creative artists?  (A non-friend basically said the same thing, publicly, on this blog.  We won't go there.)

Well, no, I didn't.  And yet, yes, I did.  And in that seeming contradiction lies my defense of an issue I have visited far too often.  I would leave it alone if it didn't keep coming up, again and again and again and again.   And because it lies at the heart of The Great Debate.

The author was devastated, went on a rampage, got more hostile reviews, and eventually flounced.  We're all familiar with the scenario; what few details vary from case to case really don't matter.  We read the same words -- mean, vicious, troll, bullies -- and yawned, ho hum.  And we got ready to move on, leaving the writer to do whatever she chose to do.

Wait a minute.  Let's back up a bit.  Did I write "insincere" in reference to some reviews?  I did, and I'm quite well aware that the word is used as a surrogate for a variety of other words.  Like inaccurate, untruthful, retaliatory, mean, and yes, even bullying, as well as fake, bought, squeeing, and sock puppeted.   Can something that's insincere also be kind?

During this whole discussion in various venues and over considerable time, someone posted, somewhere, one of those cute little poster things about kindness.  And I think I even responded, quoting in turn the little epigram sometimes attributed to Etienne de Grellet, and sometimes to William Penn.  
"I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."
And I wondered, not for the first time, if kindness trumps honesty.  And to whom is kindness owed, if kindness to one party harms another?

I took a break from all that angst for a while.  For one thing, I was wrapped up in the republishing of my own book, Legacy of Honor, and I needed to concentrate on that.  A good portion of what little free time I have this time of year also has to be dedicated to preparing for the seasonal art shows I participate in.  So worrying about reviews of other people's books was not high on my priority list.  The whole brouhaha continued unabated anyway; it would no doubt be still raging when I came back to it.

And of course it was.  Legacy of Honor was now out there, ready for any reviews positive or negative, and I was going to be put to the test.

I don't look at my reviews.  Not ever, unless by accident or someone brings something specific about a review to my attention.  Maybe I should look at them more often, but I figure what's the point?  If someone likes the book, they'll say something nice, and I'll get all over-confident and conceited; or I'll find out someone doesn't like it and I'll go into a dismal funk the way I did over Moonsilver. (Which funk had nothing to do with reviews, but anyway.)  So I just don't look at them.

And anyway, they're not for me.  They're for other readers.  That's what I keep saying, and I damn well better mean it.

Of course, I'm not stupid, and I know that there are probably a few or even more than a few retaliatory reviews on my books from people whose books I didn't like.  Maybe someone found  a typo I missed (shit happens) or they just felt like being mean.  They're allowed to do that.  It's only a book review.  It's only a book.

But what if there's an error?  A great huge gaping plot hole I missed in all my various revisions and someone catches it and I could easily fix it and reupload it and. . . . and. . . . . . . and. . . . . .  ..  ..  .

If there is, that's my fault.  I could have asked someone else to read it, someone I knew and trusted who would be able to find any such plot holes or internal inconsistencies or whatever.  Not that I really know anyone like that.  A critique partner?  To go through all 194,000 words?  To keep track of all the little details the way a professional editor would?  Oh, wait, a professional editor did edit it and left lots and lots and lots and lots of plot holes in it 28 years ago.

Sure, I know.  That was Leisure, and they weren't noted for their attention to detail.  (Like, typos on the back cover copy?  Hello??  Excuse me?!?!)

But whoever edited my later books at Zebra didn't catch the big errors either.  Like the crucial bit of dialogue that was virtually copied and pasted and duplicated due to one of my own revisions and no one caught it.  Not in editing, not in copyediting, not in typesetting, not in proofing, not in page proofs.  It was embarrassing for me, yes, because I was the author.  But at least I could shove some of the blame onto the editorial team for that one.

Ultimately, therefore, if a reviewer finds an error, oh well, she finds an error.  Other readers will be alerted to it and I'll continue in blissful ignorance because I'm not going anywhere near those reviews.  (If there even are any!)

Reviewers have to feel free to write whatever they want.  Computer-generated sock puppet accounts are not reviewers.  Paid shills are not reviewers.  (Edited to add:  They're commercials, and should be identified as such.  Should their reviews be allowed?  Yes, as long as they're identified as what they are: Paid advertising.)  Friends and relatives and colleagues at the same publisher and editors and so on -- yes, they're reviewers.  They should, if they're honest, disclose their relationship, but hey, people aren't always particularly honest.  If they're the competition, they should note that, too.

Regardless, however, real reviewers need to be able to review freely.  They shouldn't need to ask if the book has been edited or proofread.  They shouldn't need to ask if the author is 12 years old or 30 or 70.  They shouldn't need to ask if the author is depending on income from the sales of this book to put her children through college or pay for her pending kidney transplant.  They shouldn't need to ask if the author wants an honest review or just ego strokes.  Unless and until the author makes her behavior part of the selling of the book, the review should only be about the book.

Is it well written?  Does it make sense?  Did the reader find it enjoyable? 

I feel pretty confident that my writing -- blog, discussion posts, fiction, non-fiction -- can pass as reasonably professional.  My spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax haven't been called into question at least since I graduated high school, and that was in 1966.  The fact that I sold seven novels to royalty publishers does give me some reassurance that I can come up with decent story ideas and then develop them into readable books. 

In other words, I'm pretty sure my writing is competent enough that my republished digital editions aren't going to be slammed for bad writing and huge plot holes.  What's left is reader opinion, and as far as I'm concerned, that's sacrosanct.  As long as it's a real person writing it, the review is untouchable by the author of the book. 

Which brings it all back to the beginning.  Not just the question of whether a reviewer, any reviewer, has an obligation to be kind to the author, but the specific question of whether I, as writer and reviewer, have a special obligation to treat my fellow wordcrafters with a unique brand of kindness reserved for colleagues.

It would be easy to fall back on the "reviews are for readers, not authors" mantra that I've spouted often enough.  And it's true.  But I've also never made any secret of the fact that many of my reviews are essentially critiques leveled at the writing if not directly at the writer.  Yes, I definitely feel readers should be alerted to research errors and sloppy formatting and whiny characters and dull narrative and so on.  If I don't know the writer and have never had any interaction (even secondhand) with her either online or in person, how can I possibly write a review based on anything other than the writing?  Seriously -- it's always going to come back to the writing.

Still, how does that answer the question:  Do I as a writer have an obligation to temper my reviews with kindness simply because I'm a writer?  Does kindness trump my obligation to give an honest review?  Does kindness to the author, if it requires lying, matter more than telling her the truth about her terrible writing?  Does kindness to the author, if it requires lying, overrule letting potential readers know how bad the book is?

I think I've mentioned the experience of a fellow writer some 25 or so years ago whose career was essentially killed by kindness.  After completing a novel, she sent it to her agent who requested some minor changes.  She made the changes and resubmitted.  The agent asked for just a few more little alterations.  Done and resubmitted.  The agent then suggested a few more tiny revisions.  Well, when all was said and done, the book bore little resemblance to what the writer had originally written, and she gave up in frustration.  The agent told her she didn't want to overwhelm her with so many changes all at once; she was trying to be kind.  To my knowledge, the writer never wrote anything else.

Is it therefore better to say nothing, to write no review at all, to pretend a badly written book doesn't exist, than to express the opinion that it's badly written?  Or am I merely justifying my own meanness and cruelty and whatever?  Who determines what constitutes a mean or cruel review?  And who is the cruelty directed at? 

I struggled with this, as I have struggled with it before, and I reached no resolution.  I read the poor author's reaction to reading the reviews of her novel and I wondered if the reviewers had been unnecessarily harsh.  Had I been unnecessarily harsh in some of my reviews?  Had I hurt the authors' feelings unnecessarily?

Was it possible, I pondered, to write a scathing review that spared the author's sensibilities?  Was it possible to write a negative review that still offered encouragement and support to the author?  Was it possible to warn readers who might have come to trust my judgment that this was a book they might want to avoid, while at the same time not hurting the author's feelings?

Yes, I'm sure it is.  It's also possible to run an under four minute mile, but I sure as hell can't do it.

I will continue to write reviews honestly, and if some writers take that honesty as unkindness or cruelty, I am sorry.  But I'm not going to change the way I review.  I cannot temper my remarks to spare the author when to do so would be lying to the readers. 

And I expect the same honesty from anyone who chooses to review my books.  If they want to be mean and nasty, go right ahead.  I'm not going to read them, and any writer who doesn't have the confidence not to read reviews probably should be hurt by harsh criticism.  Her work is probably not ready for publication.  And I'm not going to be kind to her at the expense of those readers who have come to trust my judgment.  Some of them, after all, may be my fellow writers.  And above all else, I owe them my honesty, not my kind lies.


  1. I love you, Linda - you know that, I eat your graceful words up with a giant spoon - but it drives me nuts when people say, "it doesn't matter who they are." Yes, it does. If they're important enough to merit mentioning in a post - and I know how deliberate you are about your writing - then obviously they matter. Now I'm frustrated as hell because I don't know which author. Does it literally matter who they are? No and I wouldn't normally give a damn, except you threw out that it was a giant meltdown with all of the BBA buzzwords, that only some inner circle knows about it and now I'm riled up, obviously for no good reason, but there it is anyway.

    It's the blog post equivalent of sub-tweeting and while I know it has little to do with your post's intent, which god knows I always support you in, it's all I saw.

  2. My apologies, Barb! I didn't mean to leave you frustrated! And please note that there is a whole bunch more added to this post now. It won't answer your question, but it does expand on the whole issue a lot. I just didn't want to give GR all the free content.

    To tell you the truth, I don't remember who the author was or the book. It was a brief flare-up, not something I would be even remotely interested in reading, so I didn't pay that much attention to it. It may even have been an old one that someone or something called my attention to at that particular time. I was immersed in some real life crises at the time, too, which is how the issue even entered conversations with non-GR friends, including some real life friends.

    In terms of what I wrote in the blog post, the identity of the author really doesn't matter; it could have been any of them we've noted in the past, because the same issue always comes up: Reviewers should be kind to the author, especially other authors. That was part of what started the whole discussion on Dear Author last summer, that reviewers -- especially women reviewers -- needed to be nicer, kinder, gentler. Even if it means they have to lie??? That's what set me off originally.

    I do know this much: A.D. Duling left her comments here on the blog on 15 August, which was just before the Howard/Pippa fiasco. I wrote my comments about GR not allowing cyber-bullying on 24 August, again in response to the whole Howard/Pippa drama, then the "sticks and stones" blog post on or about 5 September. This post was started some time after that, but before The Great Purge of 20 September. THAT event altered everything, especially because the only review I lost in the purge was of A.D. Duling's book.

    So it really and truly doesn't matter which book/author it was. You can substitute any of them because they're really all the same. They demand lies of kindness -- or they'll silence us. I just flat out refused to be silenced. And I will stand behind any other reviewer who also refuses. Not sock puppets, not computer-generated GR accounts, and not paid Fiverr shills. I'll stand behind the friends and family who want to boost the book and the author, as long as they're honest about it.

    I just came across another review on Amazon last night that is from the author's mother, even though she doesn't come out and say it. She has one review, the account says "real name," she has the same last name as the author, and if you do the "look inside" preview, she's listed in the dedication. So, what good is it going to do to report it to Amazon? Nothing, because it's a 5-star review. I'm not going to waste my time. And I don't even remember what book that one was, except it was probably a fairly recent historical romance.

    Honest reviewers are the only gatekeepers left in the self-publishing universe. I think that's pretty much what Laura Miller of Salon is saying, too, in her criticism of the GoodReads purge. As an author, I want those honest reviewers. As a reader, I want those honest reviewers. And all the booksellers from the Amazon behemoth on down, damn well should want those honest reviewers.

    Oh, hell, I need to get off this damn soap box and get back to the day job. Ugh.

    Again, Barb, my sincere apologies. I know how you feel, though. Curiosity can be a wonderful, but also a very irritating thing. I once spent three hours at the Phoenix Public Library -- in the days before The Internets -- and engaged the services of several librarians in a search for the artist who created "Injun Summer." What took us hours then only takes seconds now, but the answer is not something I'm likely ever to forget after than marathon search: John T. McCutcheon.